O'Connor needs to take advantage of Wallabies chance: Cheika

The Rugby Championship
by Emma Greenwood

Michael Cheika may have made the first move but ultimately, it was James O'Connor who made the pivotal steps that would bring him back into the Wallabies fold for a tilt at the World Cup.

O'Connor was today named in the Wallabies' team to play Argentina and will cap an absence of 2140 days when he comes off the bench at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.

The utility was just 23 when the then-Australian Rugby Union tore up his contract in 2013 for repeated infringements, seemingly ending his 44-Test career.

But a semi-clandestine meeting at a Leicester train station between Cheika and O'Connor this year while the utility was playing for Sale in English Premiership Rugby, started the ball rolling on rekindling the international career of the former wild child.

"Most of these things happen by random," Cheika said.

"You say: 'Why not, call the guy, see what happens', because you don't know what's going to happen.

james O'Connor at Wallabies training in Brisbane. photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

"We've created an opportunity, it's about taking the opportunity. He was keen to come back and I think, most importantly, he was keen to play for Australia.

"He wants to be good enough, because he knows he's got to be good enough to play for Australia and show what he's got.

"Now he's earnt himself an opportunity but there's still a way to go."

Cheika had kept a close eye on O'Connor's progress overseas, as he did for a number of offshore players.

In fact, Cheika's squad could be viewed as a case of "Back to the Future" for Australian rugby.

Along with O'Connor, Luke Jones, who returned from France to link with the Rebels for the last Super Rugby season, has been named on the bench to play his first Test in 1701 days, while Nic White started at halfback last week, ending his 1435-day absence from the Wallabies after returning from Exeter.

 

And it's not just overseas players that Cheika has kept his eye on. Christian Lealiifano will play his first Test after an absence of 1125 days, while James Slipper returned to the front row last week 1020 days after playing his last Wallabies match.

"He's had a good season overseas, the same as we've seen Nic White play overseas and then he's come back, trained hard, he's integrated himself well with the players and I think he's merited the opportunity to get a run," Cheika said of O'Connor, who has linked with the Queensland Reds for next season to become eligible for Wallabies selection.

“Like all the players playing overseas, you watch them closely and based off the back of his form over there, that’s when I approached him.

“From there it just happened.  He’s made a lot happen himself to get back here.

"He’s made sacrifices – first world sacrifices – he's made a lot of effort because he really wants it. He wants to play footy for his country and he wants to do it well.

“I didn’t know him that much from before so for me, he’s been training hard, helping out his team mates , excellent preparation off the field, and deserves his opportunity off the back of his form and what he’s brought. Pretty simple.

 

“From the first training session he stepped on the field, he’s shown good quality.”

While there were calls for the injection of a second playmaker into the backline after the Wallabies' struggles against South Africa's rush defence last week, Cheika has resisted the temptation to start O'Connor in the centres, preferring to give the Samu Kerevi-Tevita Kuridrani pairing time to "flourish".

And while O'Connor sees his best position as 12, that's not necessarily where he'll end up on Saturday.

"He can play many positions, so he's handy in that type of slot, as a finisher," Cheika said.

"He had that very nervous look in his face when the selection came and I'm sure he's so excited to play."

Close mate Kurtley Beale, who will start at fullback against the Pumas, said it was great to see O'Connor in "a really good space and playing some really decent rugby".

 

“As Cheik alluded to he’s a really good guy now, getting around and adding his bit to the team," Beale said.

"You can see that he’s a quality player when he’s got the ball in hand. He’s got some really nice touches about him.

“Defensively he’s really strong as well, which surprised me a bit. I knew that he got a lot of experience in the centres playing for Sale.

“He’s been working really hard at his game and he’s another player pushing hard for a spot. It’s creating a really healthy environment for all players to get better in.”

There have been changes off the field too.

Beale was diplomatic, saying O'Connor was showing "maturity around meetings" and was "very respected amongst his peers".

But it's perhaps 101-Test veteran Will Genia who has given the straightest answer.

“How can I put it," Genia said.

“Tuesday nights James was always out and about doing stuff in the lead up, because Wednesdays we have off so it’s your only free time.

“In the last three or four weeks that we’ve had he’s been in his room stretching, he's doing recovery.

“He understands that this is a huge opportunity for him. I think he said he wants Queensland to see his best self and I think that’s the same for the Wallabies as well.

"He’s certainly living up to those words in the way he prepares and carries himself in and around the group.”

The Wallabies host Argentina at Suncorp Stadium, kicking off at 7:45pm AEST, LIVE on Network Ten, FOX SPORTS, Kayo Sports and via RUGBY.com.au RADIO.

Buy tickets here.